Safety vs. Profits in the Oil and Gas Industry
By David Carnes, Staff Writer
The oil and gas extraction industry can easily attract workers because the average pay is so high – indeed, it is one of the very few industries in which a high school graduate can earn a six-figure income. These wages come with a price, however –oil and gas workers face a fatality rate of five to seven times the national average for all workers. Recently the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 144 oil and gas workers died in the United States in 2014, a sharp increase from the year before.
“Tank gauging” is the practice of measuring oil volume and water content in oil tanks. It is a particularly dangerous endeavor when done manually, the way many oil companies do it – a worker simply drops a vial and tape measure though the hatch of an oil tank. The danger arises from the accumulation of vapors just above the “water level” of the tanks, which can produce a violent eruption of chemicals right into the worker’s face.
Such an eruption can be powerful enough to knock off the worker’s helmet and force poisonous hydrocarbons into his lungs. Although statistics indicate that at least 10 workers have died in this manner since 2010, some researchers believe that the real figure is much higher because industry-related deaths that were attributed to other causes were actually caused by hydrocarbon poisoning.
Despite the obvious dangers of tank gauging, however, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not require the use of respirators when performing tank gauging unless special factors are present. To make matters worse, despite the minimal expense involved in providing respirators to their employees, comparatively few companies provide them.
A far safer method of tank gauging that can greatly reduce the risk of hydrocarbon poisoning is to install sensors inside the tanks, thereby allowing a worker to gauge tank levels from a location far removed from hydrocarbon fumes. Indeed, some companies have switched to this method; however, smaller companies have generally cited cost concerns as an excuse to stick to manual tank gauging.
In response to this widespread reluctance to install automated sensors, the federal Bureau of Land Management is now seeking regulation requiring the use of automated systems in oil tanks located on federal and tribal lands. This initiative has been met with fierce resistance by industry associations such as the American Petroleum Institute, the Independent Petroleum Association of America and the Western Energy Alliance, the latter of which asserts that the proposed regulations could cost the oil industry up to $60,000 per tank.
Worker deaths in the oil and gas extraction industry have been increasing for over a decade, even as the industry has poured billions of dollars into new safety measures. Obviously, these safety measures have been insufficient. Considering the catastrophic effects that security lapses have on oil industry workers and their families, governmental entities at both the state and federal level should step in with new regulatory requirements, and courts should enforce them aggressively. Only in this way will the oil and gas extraction industry will be forced to take measures to better protect the health and safety of their employees.